Within the past few months, we have witnessed a massive shake up in the world of comedy and improv. Back in April, it was kicked off by the announcement of the closing of the UCB theater in New York, although they would be maintaining a presence in various locations around the city. And then last week, amidst a public outcry, CEO and co-owner of Second City resigned where he admitted his failure to “to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive”. This was in response to a movement that was started by Chris Redd and others accusing the institution in an open letter of “erasure, racial discrimination, manipulation, pay inequity, tokenism, monetization of Black culture, and trauma-inducing experiences of Black artists…”
And now iO, formerly Improv Olympics, have announced that they will be shutting their doors. The pandemic was cited as the reason for this.
“This pandemic has made the financial struggle too difficult and I can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point,” founder Charna Halpern wrote in an email that was shared on her Facebook page. “Over my 40 years, I have met many struggles to keep going and I did it to keep a place for my community to have stage time. But at this point in my life, I can’t continue the struggle to stay open.”
iO was founded in 1981 by Halpern and improv guru Del Close in Chicago. It has become, along with Second City, an institution for improvisers. Some of the notable alumni include the biggest names in comedy including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Jon Favreau, Chris Farley, Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, Jack McBrayer, David Koechner, Ike Barinholtz, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, and Eric Stonestreet, among countless others. iO was consistently a place that would be scouted for new talent to audition for SNL. The brand even branched out to California with iO West, but that wound up shutting down a few years ago.
iO has not been met without controversey, though. A few years ago, the artistic director at iO West was fired after multiple people had come forward and accused him of sexual harassment. This was not an isolated incident, however, as many other women began coming forward and claiming that while the abuse and treatment they receive was not exclusive to iO, it was certainly at the epicenter of it.
And then as recently as last week, iO was again brought under fire due to a petition that started circulating. Started by Olivia Jackson, it was requested that iO “Decentralize theater decision making. Distribute power and give more power to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color],” as well as “Make iO a genuinely inclusive space for QBIPOC [Queer Black, Indigenous and People of Color] and folx of all abilities.”
Some of the things that were being demanded before these performers would return included Halpern acknowledging the institutional racism “as well as her individual history of racism”, that Halpern not be the only determiner at iO and that “iO must create a governing body of paid employees that allows for the distribution of power and equitable decision making.” The other items were that iO hire an BIPOC Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator, as picked by a committee made up of “BIPOC LGBTQIA+ performers and students,” and also that “iO must commit to a fully revised and decolonized curriculum in order to create a learning environment where Black students can thrive.”
Additionally, iO would have to commit to recruiting students from underprivileged communities, a thorough investigation and the removal of any teachers or staff “guilty of any racial violence, cultural appropriation, and abuse towards Black students and performers,” as well as increase funding for their DiOversity program.
Halpern had responded to the petition prior to announcement of the closing of iO, by stating the following.
“Thank you. To anyone who has commented or emailed or signed the petition about racism and discrimination at The iO Theater and especially to those that wrote the petition, thank you. We are only capable of improving when we are able to take a note, so I open my ears and my heart to your concerns and critiques.”
She went onto address the criticism the theater had received, and how she planned to work with those behind the petition, writing “I must take responsibility for the failings in every department, and for my own failings. I am sorry.“ She also admitted regret as to not being fast enough to embrace BIPOC and LGBTQIA+. She continued to state…
“Over the past two weeks, and really for years, as I’ve read criticism and complaints about iO online, I can’t help but feel sad. I take it personally and my emotions get the best of me and I get resentful and angry. I often wonder if anyone appreciates the work we have done at iO for the past 40 years. I realize now that this criticism and critique, and calls for reform come from a place of love. I wouldn’t receive the critical comments and messages if people didn’t want the theater to change for the better. There wouldn’t be a petition signed by 1,500 and growing if they didn’t care for iO and want it to improve. I feel grateful and thankful for having a community such as this that will hold those accountable who can affect that change. Anyone who wants to perform at iO should be able to do so without the guilt that they are supporting an institution whose morals and ethics don’t align with their own. For all of the reasons here I happily commit to working towards the demands laid out in the Change.org petition.”
She closed the statement out by stating “Regarding all seven of the petition’s demands, we only ask for your patience while we try to stabilize the future viability of the theater.”
While it is certainly sad to see an institution that had brought us so many important voices in comedy close its doors, it was not done without these new voices being heard as to what was going on in the community. Life post-pandemic isn’t going to be easy on the comedy community, and something tells us that this isn’t going to be the last we hear of closures. We are eager to see what comedy is going to look like on the other side of this.